United States President Joe Biden says he has “not yet” decided if he will travel to Saudi Arabia, a week after he opened the door to a possible trip.
The comment on Saturday came amid opposition to the possible trip from Democratic Party legislators and human rights groups.
Unnamed US officials told local media last week that Biden was planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, along with a trip to Europe and Israel in late June.
The visit would signal the most distinct departure to date from the Biden administration’s promise to “recalibrate” ties with longtime ally Saudi Arabia for alleged human rights abuses.
Biden called Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” for his role in the killing of a political opponent and US resident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.
The Saudi government has denied any involvement of the crown prince.
Asked by a reporter in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Saturday if he would use a possible trip to the Middle East to secure a deal to improve Saudi-Israeli relations, Biden said: “We’ll see.”
Any potential visit to Saudi Arabia likely would be aimed at bolstering relations with the country at a time when Biden is trying to find ways to lower gasoline prices in the US.
There are concerns that high prices at the gas pump could hurt Biden’s Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections, in which it will fight to maintain majorities in the US House of Representatives and Senate.
A White House official said on Friday that the US would not overlook conduct that took place before Biden’s presidency, but that “it was also important to reorient – but not rupture – relations with Saudi Arabia”, noting the country’s role as a strategic partner of the US for eight decades.
Thirteen human rights groups sent a joint letter to Biden on Thursday, saying a meeting between the US president and the Saudi crown prince risks encouraging new abuses and further entrenching impunity in the kingdom.
They said Biden must ensure that Saudi authorities make concrete commitments on human rights before a US presidential visit.
“President Biden should recognize that any meeting with a foreign official provides them instant credibility on a global stage, whether intended or not,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, one of the groups that signed the letter.
“Meeting Mohammed bin Salman without human rights commitments would vindicate Saudi leaders who believe there are no consequences for egregious rights violations,” she said.
A leading Democratic Party legislator, Adam Schiff, has also spoken out against the planned visit, saying Biden should not go and meet Prince Mohammed.
“This is someone who butchered an American resident, cut him up into pieces — and in the most terrible and premeditated way,” Schiff, who chairs the House of Representatives intelligence committee, told CBS’s Face the Nation programme last week.
“Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of [its] human rights, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him,” Schiff said of the crown prince.
In a subsequent letter, Schiff and five other prominent legislators said any engagement with Saudi Arabia must be aimed at “recalibrating the relationship to serve America’s national interests”.
The letter did not urge Biden to call off the trip but raised six areas for the US president to focus on with Saudis, including global oil markets, the war in Yemen, and the killing of Khashoggi.